Last week, I spent the day with the Big Lottery Fund and a bunch of evaluators who are running five large evaluations of major BLF programmes. The evaluators come together regularly to exchange and learn from each other’s experiences. This meeting was focusing on the topic of evaluation and complexity. I was asked by BLF to set the scene by talking about what complexity is and why it is relevant for evaluation. Afterwards, I enjoyed listening to the evaluators on how they made sense of complexity and the consequences for their evaluations. Here a summary of my inputs and some insights from the subsequent discussion.
We know that current development challenges are complex. But not all elements of a development programme are necessarily complex. How does a theory of change look like that shows us which aspects of a programme are complex and which aren’t? How does this help managers to develop appropriate strategies for interventions and focus their attention?
I have been thinking quite a bit about monitoring and how to find a monitoring framework that works in programmes that are facing the complexities of the real world (and I blogged about it before here and here). More and more monitoring guides speak about the complexities programme managers and staff face ‘out there’ and some guides even venture as far as to say that change in the real world is not linear or predictable. The new BEAM Monitoring guidance, which I co-authored, for example, states that ‘a market systems programme is unlikely to achieve its goals in a simple, linear way. It may be difficult to fully understand (at least in advance) how causes and effects will work at a system-wide level. There may therefore be significant uncertainties about how the overall market system may be re-oriented to serve poor people better.’ Continue reading
The Cynefin Framework with the newly renamed ‘Obvious’ domain (formerly ‘Simple’). Source: Cognitive Edge
In the Cynefin framework, complex and chaotic are two separate domains. Complexity is defined as the domain where agents and constraints co-evolve, chaos as where there are no constraints. Both are part of the unordered side of Cynefin, i.e. where events are unpredictable and expert knowledge and analysis are not leading to better decisions. Chaos is seen as a domain where you don’t really want to be, so all you have to do there is go act quickly and decisively to get out. To use Dave Snowden’s words: “Chaos is a transitionary domain. (…) If you collapse into it without [intention] then the strategy is to move out in a controlled way; you will move out as constraints happen naturally. Entered deliberately it can create the conditions for radical innovation, used as contained chaos it allows for distributed cognition or Wisdom of Crowds. Nothing resides in Chaos for any period without sustained effort.” Continue reading
This post was first posted on Mesopartner’s Systemic Insight page.
This week, the five partners of Mesopartner and Marcus are meeting in South Africa for the annual partner meeting. The meeting is an important event for Mesopartner where knowledge and learning is exchanged, new ideas and theories are shared, the Summer Academy is planned, and many other strategic issues are discussed. Continue reading
The last week of June I had the privilege of attending a three-day training event with Dave Snowden, founder of Cognitive Edge and “mental father” of the Cynefin framework. For me this was a great experience and although I had read a lot of stuff around complexity (also by Dave), there were still many new insights I got. Some things were new, others just became clearer. One thing that I knew but that was becoming more pronounced during the training is the differentiation between best/good practice and emergent practice. Continue reading
One concept I like when I’m thinking of complexity is the Cynefin framework developed by Dave Snowden (see the picture on the right). I mentioned the framework already in one of my answers to the comments of the last post on ‘What is complexity?’.
The beauty of the framework is that it helps you to categorize problems in simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. Furthermore, it gives you a strategy for each of these domains how to design your problem solution. For example for complicated problems the strategy would be ‘sense – analyze – respond’, meaning that first you have to sense the problem, analyze the system (or call in experts who know the system) and respond based on the analysis.
I do think that it makes sense to differentiate between the four domains. The problem really is that in the past we treated many problems that are actually complex as only complicated or even simple problems. Also in international development. In order to categorize these problems as actually being complex, we need this sort of frameworks and guidance how to approach them.
I realize that I use the word categories here. Now if you listen to the video on YouTube where Dave Snowden introduces the Cynefin framework, he makes it quite clear that this is not a categorization model, but a sense-making model. A categorization model, in his explanation, is model where the framework precedes the data. That means that the data can be filled in quickly into the existing model – with the risk to lose out on the subtleties. A sense-making model on the other hand is one where the data precede the framework. Here, “the pattern of the framework emerges from the data in a social process”, as Dave Snowden puts it.
But I think it is easiest if I let Dave Snowden introduce the framework himself. Have a look here at the YouTube movie.
For more information, there is also a Wikipedia page on the Cynefin Framework.